“I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”


Act Three

By Dennis Abrams


macbethforbes2Act Three:  Although Banquo has doubts about his friend Macbeth’s role in recent events, he agrees to celebrate the coronation at a banquet. But Macbeth wants Banquo dead, and arranges for assassins to murder him and his son Fleance. The attempt is botched, though, and Fleance escapes. That night at the banquet, Macbeth alarms his guests when he see what he thinks is Banquo’s bloody ghost. The dinner breaks up in disarray. Lennox and another Lord discuss their misgivings about Macbeth and how Macduff is trying to raise an army against him.


From Harold Bloom:

“So accustomed to Macbeth to Macbeth to second sight that he evidences neither surprise nor fear at the visionary knife but coolly attempts to grasp this ‘dagger of the mind.’ The phrase ‘a false creation’ subtly hints at the Gnostic cosmos of Macbeth, which is the work of some Demiurge, whose botchings made creation itself a fall. With a wonderful metaphysical courage, admiration for which helps implicate us in Macbeth’s guilts, he responds to the phantasmagoria by drawing his own dagger, thus acknowledging his oneness with his own proleptic yearnings. As in King Lear, the primary meaning of fool in this play is ‘victim,’ but Macbeth defiantly asserts the possibility that his eyes, rather than being victims, may be worth all his other senses together.

This moment of bravura is dispersed by a new phenomenon in Macbeth’s visionary history, as the hallucination undergoes a temporal transformation, great drops of blood manifesting themselves upon blade and handle. ‘There’s no such thing,’ he attempts to insist, but yields instead to one of those openings-out of eloquence that perpetually descend upon him. In that yielding to Hecate’s sorcery, Macbeth astonishingly identifies his steps towards the sleeping Duncan with Tarquin’s ‘ravishing strides’ toward his victim in Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece. Macbeth is not going to ravish Duncan, except of his life, but the allusion would have thrilled many in the audience. I again take it that this audacity is Shakespeare’s own signature, establishing his complicity with his protagonist’s imagination. ‘I go, and it is done’ constitutes the climactic prolepsis; we participate, feeling that Duncan is dead already, before the thrusts have been performed.

It is after the next murder, Banquo’s and after Macbeth’s confrontation with Banquo’s ghost, that the proleptic utterances begin to yield to the usurper’s sense of being more outraged than outrageous:

Blood hath been shed ere now, i’ th’ olden time,

Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal;

Ay, and since too, murthers have been perform’d

Too terrible for the ear: the time has been,

That, when the brains were out, the man would die,

And there was an end, but now, they rise again,

With twenty mortal murthers on their crowns,

And push us from our stools. This is more strange

Than such a murther is.

Since moral contexts, as Nietzsche advised us, are simply irrelevant to Macbeth, its protagonist’s increasing sense of outrage is perhaps not as outrageous as it should be. The witches equivocate with him, but they are rather equivocal entities in any case. I like Bradshaw’s comment that they ‘seem curiously capricious and infantile, hardly less concerned with pilots and chestnuts than with Macbeth and Scotland.’ Far from governing the kenoma, or cosmological emptiness, in which Macbeth is set, they seem much punier components of it than Macbeth himself. [MY NOTE:  Nice point.]  A world that fell even as it was created is anything but a Christian nature. Though Hecate has some potency in this nature, one feels a great Demiurgical force at loose in this play. Shakespeare will not name it, except to call it ‘time,’ but that is a highly metaphorical time, not the ‘olden time’ or good old days, when you bashed someone’s brains out and so ended them, but ‘now,’ when their ghosts displace us.

That ‘now’ is the empty world of Macbeth, into which we, as audience, have been thrown, and that sense of ‘throwness’ is the terror that Wilbur Sanders and Graham Bradshaw emphasize in Macbeth. When Macduff has fled to England, Macbeth chills us with a vow: ‘From this moment,/The very firstlings of my heart shall be/The firstlings of my hand.’ Since those firstlings pledge the massacre of Lady Macduff, her children, and all ‘unfortunate souls’ related to Macduff, we are to appreciate that the heart of Macbeth is very much also the heart of the play’s world. Macbeth’s beheading by Macduff prompts the revenger, at the end, to proclaim, ‘The time is free,’ but we do not believe Macduff. How can we? The world is Macbeth’s precisely as he imagined it, only the kingdom belongs to Malcolm. King Lear, also set in the cosmological emptiness, is too various to be typified by any single utterance, even of Lear’s own, but Macbeth concentrates his play and his world in its most famous speech:

She should have died hereafter:

There would have been a time for such a word. –

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Dr. Johnson, rightly shocked that this should be Macbeth’s response to the death of his wife, at first insisted that ‘such a word’ was an error for ‘such a world.’ When the Grand Cham retreated from his emendation, he stubbornly argued that ‘word’ meant ‘intelligence’ in the sense of ‘information,’ and so did not refer to ‘hereafter,’ as, alas, it certainly does. Jonson’s moral genius was affronted, as it was by the end of King Lear, and Johnson was right: neither play sees with Christian optics. Macbeth has the authority to speak for his plan and his world, as for his self. In Macbeth’s time there is no hereafter, in any world. And yet this is the suicide of his own wife that has been just reported to him. Grief, in any sense we could apprehend, is not expressed by him. Instead of an elegy for Queen Macbeth, we hear a nihilistic death march, or rather a creeping of fools, of universal victims. The ‘brief candle’ is both the sun and the individual life, no longer the ‘great bond’ of Macbeth’s invocation just before Macbeth’s murder:

     Come, seeling night,

Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful Day,

And, with thy bloody and invisible hand,

Cancel, and tear to pieces, that great bond

Which keeps me pale: — Light thickens, and the crow

Makes wing to th’ rooky wood,

Good things of Day begin to droop and drose,

While night’s black agents to their preys to rouse,

Thou marvell’st at my words: but hold thee still;

Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.

There the night becomes a royal falcon rending the sun apart, and Macbeths’ imagination is wholly apocalyptic. In the ‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow’ chant, the tenor is postapocalyptic, as it will be in Macbeth’s reception of the news that Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane:

I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun,

And wish th’ estate o’ th’ world were now undone –

Life is a walking shadow in that sun, a staged representation like the bad actor whose hour of strutting and fretting will not survive our leaving the theater. Having carried the reverberation of Ralph Richardson as Falstaff in my ear for half a century, I reflect (as Shakespeare, not Macbeth, meant me to reflect) that Richardson will not be ‘heard no more’ until I am dead. Macbeth’s finest verbal coup is to revise his metaphor; life suddenly is no longer a bad actor, but an idiot’s story, nihilistic of necessity. The magnificent language of Macbeth and of his play is reduced to ‘sound and fury,’ but that phrase plays back against Macbeth, his very diction, in all its splendor, refuting him. It is as though he at last refuses himself any imaginative sympathy, a refusal impossible for his audience to make.”

From Mark Van Doren:

“[Lady Macbeth’s] has commanded him to screw his courage to the sticking-point, but what is the question that haunts him when he comes from Duncan’s bloody bed, with hands that can never be washed white again?

     Wherefore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’?

I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’

Stuck in my throat.

He must not consider such things so deeply, his lady warns him. But he does, and in good time she will follow suit. That same night the Scottish earth, shaking in a convincing sympathy as the Roman earth in “Julius Caesar” never shook, considers the grievous state of a universe that suffocates in the breath of its own history. Lamentings are heard in the air, strange screams of death, and prophecies of dire combustion and confused events. And the next morning, says Ross to an old man he meets,

     By the clock ‘t’ is day,

And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.

olivier and leighMacbeth is now king, but his fears ‘stick deep’ in Banquo. The thought of one more murder that will give him perhaps the “clearness’ he requires (III, i, 133) seems for a moment to free his mind from its old obsessive horror of dusk and thickness, and he can actually invoke these conditions – in the only verse he ever uses with conscious literary intention:

Come, seeling night,

Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful Day,

And, with thy bloody and invisible hand,

Cancel, and tear to pieces, that great bond

Which keeps me pale: — Light thickens, and the crow

Makes wing to th’ rooky wood,

Good things of Day begin to droop and drose,

While night’s black agents to their preys to rouse,

macbeth and lady act 3The melodrama of this, and its inferiority of effect, may warn us that Macbeth is only pretending to hope. The news of Fleance’s escape brings him at any rate his fit again, and he never more ceases to be ‘cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d.’ He is caught in the net for good, his feet have sunk into quicksands from which they cannot be freed, his bosom like Lady Macbeth’s is ‘stuff’d with ‘perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart.’ (v, iii, 44-5) – the figure varies, but the theme does not. A strange world not wholly of his own making has closed around him and rendered him motionless.  His gestures are spasmodic at the end, like those of one who knows he is hopelessly engulfed. And every metaphor he uses betrays his belief that the universal congestion is past cure:

What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug,

Would scour these English hence?

(V, iii, 55-6)

The answer is none.

The theme never varies, however rich the range of symbols employed to suggest it. One of these symbols is of course the fear that shakes Macbeth as if were an object not human; that makes him start when the witches call him ‘King hereafter,’ that sets his heart knocking at his ribs, that wrings from him unsafe extremities of rhetoric, that reduces him to a maniac when Banquo walks again, that spreads from him to all of Scotland until its inhabitants ‘float upon a wild and violent sea’ of terror, and that in the end, when he has lost the capacity to feel anything any longer, drains from him so that he almost forgets it taste. (V,V, 9).  Another symbol, and one that presents itself to several of our senses at once, is blood. Never in a play has there been so much of this substance, and never has it been so sickening. ‘What bloody man is that?’ the second scene opens with a messenger running in to Duncan red with wounds. And blood darkens every scene thereafter. It is not bright red, nor does it run freely and wash away. Nor is it a metaphor as it was in ‘Julius Caesar.’ It is so real that we can see, feel, and smell it on everything. And it sticks. ‘This is a sorry sight,’ says Macbeth as he comes from Duncan’s murder, starting at his hands. He had not thought there would be so much blood in them, or that it would stay there like that. Lady Macbeth is for washing the ‘filthy witness’ off, but Macbeth knows that all great Neptune’s ocean will not make him clean; rather his hand, plunged into the green, will make it all one red. The blood of the play is everywhere physical in its looks and gross in its quantity. Lady Macbeth ‘smears’ the grooms with it, so that when they are found they seem ‘badg’d’ and ‘unmannerly breech’d’ with gore, and ‘steep’d’ in the colors of their trade. The murderer who comes to report Banquo’s death has blood on his face, and the ‘blood-bolter’d Banquo,’ when he appears shakes ‘gory locks’ at Macbeth, who in deciding upon the assassination has reflected that

     I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

macbeth_summary_9Richard III had said a similar thing, but he suggested no veritable pool or swamp of blood as this man does; and his victims, wailing over their calamities, did not mean the concrete thing Macduff means when he cries, ‘Bleed, bleed, poor country!’ (iv, iii, 31). The world of the play quite literally bleeds. And Lady Macbeth, walking in her sleep, has definite stains upon the palms she rubs and rubs. ‘Yet here’s a spot…What, will these hands ne’er be clean?…Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’

A third symbol, of greater potency than either fear or blood, is sleeplessness. Just as there are more terrors in the night than day has ever taught us, and more blood in a man than there should be, so there is less sleep in this disordered world than the minimum which once had been required for health and life. One of the final signs of that disorder is indeed the death of sleep.

Methought I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep…

Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor

Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.’

Nothing that Macbeth says is more terrible than this, and no dissolution suffered by his world is more ominous. For sleep in Shakespeare is ever the privilege of the good and the reward of the innocent. If it has been put to death there is no goodness left. One of the witches knows how to torture sailors by keeping sleep from their pent-house lids, but only Macbeth can murder sleep itself. The result in the play is an ultimate weariness. The ‘restless ecstasy’ with which Macbeth’s bed is made miserable, and

     The affliction of these terrible dreams

That shake us nightly

— such things are dreadful, but his final fatigue is more dreadful still, for it is the fatigue of a soul that has worn itself out with watching fears, wading in blood, and waking to the necessity of new murders for which the hand has no relish. Macbeth’s hope that when Macduff is dead he can ‘sleep in spite of thunder’ is after all no hope. For there is no sleep in Scotland, and least of all in a man whose lids have lost the art of closing. And whose heart has lost the power of trembling like a guilty thing.

The time has been, my senses would have cool’d

To hear a night-shriek, and my feel of hair

Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir

As life were in ‘t. I have supp’d full with horrors;

Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,

Cannot once start me.

(v, v, 10-15)

Terror has denigrated into tedium, and only death can follow, either for Macbeth who lacks the season of all natures or for his lady who not only walks but talks when she should sleep, and who will not die holily in her bed.”

And from G. Wilson Knight:

macbeth photo act three“We are confronted by mystery, darkness, abnormality, hideousness; and therefore by fear. The word ‘fear’ is ubiquitous. All may be unified as symbols of this emotion. Fear is predominant. Everyone is afraid. There is scarcely a person in the play who does not feel and voice at some time a sickening, nameless terror. The impact of the play is analogous to nightmare, to which state there are many references:

     Now, o’er the one-half world,

Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse

The curtain’d sleep…

Banquo cries:

     Merciful powers,

Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature

Gives way to in repose!

Banquo has dreamed of ‘the three weird sisters,’ who are thus associated with a nightmare reality. There are those who cried in their sleep, and said their prayers after. Macbeth may ‘sleep no more’; sleep, balm of hurt minds, ‘shall neither night nor day hang upon his pent-house lid’ – if we may transfer the reference. He and his wife are condemned to live

     in the affliction of these terrible dreams

That shake us nightly.

The central act of the play is a hideous murder of sleep. Finally, we have the extreme agony of sleep-consciousness depicted in Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking. Nor are there dreams only: the narrow gulf between nightmare and the abnormal actuality of the Macbeth universe – itself of nightmare quality – is bridged by phantasies and ghosts: the dagger of Macbeth’s mind, the Ghost of Banquo, the Apparitions, the Vision of Scottish Kings, culminating in the three Weird Sisters. There is no nearer equivalent, in the experience of a normal mind, to the poetic quality of Macbeth than the consciousness of nightmare or delirium. That is why life is here a ‘tale told by an idiot,’ a ‘fitful fever’ after which the dead ‘sleep well,’ why the earth itself is ‘feverous.’ The Weird Sisters are nightmare actualized; Macbeth’s crime nightmare projected into action. Therefore this world is unknowable, hideous, disorderly, and irrational. The very style of the play has a mesmeric, nightmare quality, for in that dream-consciousness, hateful though it be, there is a nervous tension, a vivid sense of profound significance, an exceptionally rich apprehension of reality electrifying the mind; one is in touch with absolute evil, which, being absolute, has a satanic beauty, a hideous, serpent-like grace and attraction, drawing, paralyzing. This quality is in the poetic style: the language is tense, nervous, insubstantial, without anything of the visual clarity of Othello, or the massive solemnity of Timon of Athens. The poetic affect of the whole, though black with an inhuman abysm of darkness, is yet shot through and streaked with vivid color, with horrors that hold a mesmeric attraction even while they repel; and things of brightness that intensify the enveloping murk. There is constant reference to blood. Macbeth and Banquo ‘bathe in reeking wounds’ in the fight reported by the ‘bloody’ Sergeant; Macbeth’s sword ‘smoked with bloody execution’; there is the blood on Macbeth’s hands, and on Lady Macbeth’s after she has ‘smeared’ the sleeping grooms with it. There is the description of Duncan’s body, ‘his silver skin lac’d with his golden blood.’ There is blood on the face of the Murderer who comes to tell of Banquo’s ‘trenched gashes’; the ‘gory locks’ of the ‘blood-bolter’d’ Banquo; the ‘bloody child’ Apparition; the blood-nightmare of Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking. But though blood-imagery is rich, there is no brilliance in it; rather a sickly smear. Yet there is brilliance in the fire-imagery: the thunder and lightning which accompanies the Weird Sisters; the fire of the cauldron; the green glint of the spectral dagger; the glaring eyes which hold ‘no speculation’ of Banquo’s Ghost, the insubstantial sheen of the three Apparitions, the ghastly pageant of kings unborn.

macbethiMacbeth has the poetry of intensity: intense darkness shot with the varied intensity of pure light or pure color. In the same way the moral darkness is shot with imagery of bright purity and virtue. There is ‘the temple-haunting martlet’ (I,vi,4) to contrast with evil creatures. We have the early personation of the sainted Duncan, whose body is ‘the Lord’s anointed temple,’ the bright limning of his virtues by Macbeth and Macduff; the latter’s lovely words on Malcolm’s mother who, ‘oftener upon her knees than on her feet, died every day she lived’ (iv, iii, 110); the prayer of Lennox for ‘some holy angel’ to fly to England’s court for saving help; Macbeth’s agonized vision of a starry good, of ‘Heaven’s cherubim’ horsed in air, and Pity like a babe; those who pray that God may bless them in their fevered dream; above al, Malcolm’s description of England’s holy King, health-giver and God-elect who, unlike Malcolm borrows ‘grace’ to combat the nightmare evil of his own land:


Comes the King forth, I pray you?


Ay, sir; there are a crew of wretched souls

That stay his cure; their malady convinces

The great assay of art; but at his touch –

Such sanctity hath Heaven given his hand –

They presently amend.


I thank you, doctor.


What’s the disease he means?


‘Tis called the evil.

A most miraculous work in this good king;

Which often, since my here-remain in England,

I have seen him do. How he solicits Heaven,

Himself best knows: but strangely visited people,

All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,

The mere despair of surgery, he cures,

Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,

Put on with holy prayers: and ‘tis spoken,

To the succeeding royalty he leaves

The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,

He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,

And sundry blessings hang about his throne,

That speak him full of grace.

(iv, iii, 140)

This description is spoken just before Ross enters with the shattering narration of Macbeth’s most dastardly and ruinous crime. The contrast at this instant is vivid and pregnant. The King of England is thus full of supernatural ‘grace.’ In Macbeth this supernatural grace is set beside the supernatural evil. Duncan was ‘gracious’; at his death ‘renown and grace is dead.’ By ‘the grace of Grace’ alone Malcolm will restore health to Scotland. The murk, indeed, thins towards the end. Bright daylight dawns and the green leaves of Birnam come against Macbeth. A world climbs out of its darkness, and in the dawn that panorama below is a thing of nightmare delusion. The ‘sovereign flower’ is bright-dewed in the bright dawn, and the murk melts into the mists of morning: the Child is crowned, the Tree of Life in his hand.”

And finally, from Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language:

“Looking at it from a distance, we can see that the distinctive character of the language of Macbeth is largely dictated by its structure. From the first suggestion of a plot on Duncan’s life until his murder, the play exists in a world of nightmare doubt and decision: to kill or not to kill. As Thomas de Quincey expressed it in his superb essay ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” [see my post of Act Two, Part One], the knocking makes it known that ‘the reaction has commenced, the human has made its reflex upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them. Or one could site Brutus’s soliloquy in Julius Caesar:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.

The action before the murder is situated in this ‘interim’ (Macbeth himself uses the word in I.iii.154), and the verse is designed to match the terrible and uncertain decisions that occupy it. The play as a whole is greatly preoccupied with time; the Show of Kings itself covers many generations, and there is a lasting concern about lineal descendants, Macbeth fearing that whereas he has no prospect of dynastic successors, Banquo has – a difference underlined by the Weird Sisters. The way to succeed Duncan was to kill him; the way to prevent the succession of Banquo’s heirs was to kill both Banquo and Fleance. In both cases it was necessary to consider interference with the future as the Sisters foresaw it. So, in the early part of the play, the verse is full of equivocations about the present and the future, as forecast by the gnomic sayings of the Three Sisters.

Macbeth_Three_Witches_by_AlsnStvnsnTheir opening lines represent a new departure, for they tell us nothing directly about the subject of the play, speaking only of the future as perceived from the present. ‘When shall we three meet again?/In thunder, lightning, or in rain?’ offers an apparent choice of weathers that is not a choice at all, which partly prefigures the plight of Macbeth and suggests a vain selection of some aspects at the expense of others not mentioned – fine weather, for instance. The answer to these questions is: ‘When the hurly-burly’s done,/When the battle’s lost and won.’ Hurlies and burlies go together like thunder and lightning, won battles are also lost; so we have false antitheses, ghostly choices, an ironic parody of human powers of prediction. ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ is a paradox echoed by Macbeth ins the first line he speaks. In his mouth the words may be taken at face value, as referring to the bad weather on one hand and the pleasures of victory on the other; the Sisters’ use of the idea is darker and more complex. Perhaps what strikes them as fair is what to others would be foul, a crown got by crime, for instance. The paradox is ocular; oracles are traditionally equivocal. Macbeth is a play of prophecy focused, with great concentration, on the desire to feel the future in the instant, to be transported ‘beyond the ignorant present.’ When Macbeth asks the Sisters, ‘what are you?’, their reply is to tell him what he will be. The present is the long interim between thought and act (an interim that disappears when Macbeth decides to let the firstlings of his heart become the firstlings of his hand, ‘To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done.’ (IV.i.149). The first part of the play is set in a time when there is still a gap between the thought and the deed, and its language enacts this dizzying gap.

Here, perhaps more than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays, an idiosyncratic rhythm and a lexical habit establish themselves with a sort of hypnotic firmness. ‘Lost and won,’ say the Sisters at the beginning of the first scene: ‘What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won,’ says Duncan at the end of the second, having just before that rhymed ‘Macbeth’ with ‘death.’ These moments of ingrown self-allusion contrast with the old-style rant of the bleeding Sergeant. The scene in which Macbeth and Banquo encounter the sisters fully exhibits the new and peculiar ambiguous, doubling manner. Are these figures inhabitants of the earth or not? Men or women? Alive or not? They reply with their prophecy: he is already Glamis, will be Candor, will be King. Banquo answers with questions to Macbeth: why does he fear what seems so fair? Then he addresses the Sisters: ‘Are ye fantastical, or that indeed/Which outwardly ye show?’ Are you what you appear to be, or mere apparitions? Why do you speak to him and not to me?

If you can look into the seeds of time,

And say which grain will grow, and which will not,

Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear

Your favors nor your hate.

Here the rhythms reinforce the return to the original question: What can be known of the future in the present? Him/me, grow/not grow, beg/fear, favors/hate, even when they are not, as it were, necessary, part of the substance, the oppositions and alternatives sound on continually. ‘Lesser than Macbeth and great./Not so happy, yet much happier./Thou shalt get kings, though thou be one.’ Macbeth calls the Sisters ‘imperfect speakers,’ meaning that what they say is not complete enough to be understood or to satisfy him. But they vanish, leaving their imperfect speeches to be completed according to taste: ‘Your children shall be kings. You shall be king.’ The ‘self-same tune’ is now repetitively in our ears.

When Ross confirms Macbeth’s appointment as the Thane of Cawdor, Banquo’s reactions is to ask, ‘What, can the devil speak true?’ And Macbeth begins the famous sequence of allusions to borrowed or ill-fitting garments: ‘why do you dress me/In borrowed robes?’ Banquo repeats the figure almost immediately (144-6). Here these robes, if borrowed, must be on loan from the future, and they confirm a devil’s prophecy, although the fiend as a rule ‘lies like truth.’ (V.v.43). Banquo fears that this truth has been told to harm: ‘The instruments of darkness tell us truths/Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s/In deepest consequence.’ And Macbeth, contemplating a future in which he may have to murder in order to fulfill the prophecy of kingship, speaks a long aside which now completely establishes the rhythm of the interim:

This supernatural soliciting

Cannot be ill; cannot be good. If ill,

Why hath it given me earnest of success,

Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.

If good, why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,

Against the use of nature? Present fears

Are less than horrible imaginings:

My thought, whose murther yet is but fantastical,

Shakes so my single state of man that function

Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is

But what is not.

The tempting promise of the Sisters, here compacted in the sinister phrase ‘supernatural soliciting,’ seems good in so far as it began with a now undoubted truth; it seems bad in that the temptation to murder induces in him an unnatural fear and brings up the image of a dead king. These fears arise from something less than the horrors would be if they were actual; yet they are already actual enough to shake him terribly. He is ‘rapt,’ his ordinary behavior forgotten in thoughts of that imagined future action. ‘[N]othing is/But what is not/ — that is, the present is no longer present, unacted future has occupied its place. These difficult thoughts all turn on the incantatory rhythm of ‘Cannot be ill; cannot be good,’ and of ‘nothing is/But what is not,” as indeed will be much of the verse from this point on until Duncan is dead.”


More from Kermode in my next post (along with other cool stuff!), which will be Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, continuing our look at Act Three.


And FINALLY…I found the entire Ian McKellan/Judi Densch production of Macbeth — here’s Acts One and Two — I’ll post Act Three (along with more Polanski and Sean Connery) on Tuesday.



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1 Response to “I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

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